Kids worldwide ask Santa Claus for presents, but teenager Vann Morrelli learned that asking his mother was more effective. He wanted a mountain bike trail near Keene, and on Sunday, Sept. 25, his wish was partially fulfilled with the opening of the first section of the East Branch trail system located midway between Keene and Upper Jay off state Route 9N.
Like many of my friends, I had a single-gear Schwinn Speedster when I was growing up. My friends and I rode our bikes everywhere — on gravel and lumber roads, sidewalks, yards and fields — regardless of the terrain. The tires were fatter than a road bike, so they could handle the beating we gave them. We had fun.
Today mountain bike trails provide youth a similar experience, though now on trails designed for bikes with many safety features built-in. Further, mountain bike trails are designed for different ability levels. Also, when I was young, mainly young people biked all over the place while the adults leaned toward the three-speed English bikes designed for roadways. Now, people of all ages are biking off-road.
A confluence of timing, people, agencies and money brought Vann’s wish to reality. Essex County had a rarely used park with a sizeable wooded lot that rose up a ridge, providing an excellent setting for a mountain bike trail system.
“Haley Morrelli’s family is obsessed with mountain biking,” said Caitlin Bottcher of her fellow Keene Youth Commission member. “Haley wondered why there weren’t any mountain bike trails in Keene. We all mountain bike, got behind that idea, brought it to the rest of the Youth Commission, the town board, and then to BETA. It took off from there. We had a lot of support from every avenue, the county, the Adirondack Foundation, Stewart’s and beyond.”
“It was my son Vann’s idea,” said Haley. “He said, ‘Why don’t we have this? Like, make it happen, Mom.’ I said I’ll try. I’ll put it out there and see what we can do, and it was like, wow. As a family, we’ve traveled to different regions for mountain biking and just wanted to bring some of that back home because we have the woods, space and energy to make it happen.”
The Adirondack Ski Touring Council and Barkeater Trails Alliance (BETA) merged in 2014, resulting in a single group focused on backcountry mountain bike and ski trails. The result was expanding trail development skills and a more effective volunteer deployment under a single administrative body.
An expanded quality trail system and growing expertise in bike sales, service and maintenance resulted in more people taking up the sport. As one of BETA’s goals was to expand mountain biking in Keene, the Keene’s Youth Commission reaching out to them was welcome news. The pitch to create a mountain trail system was also music to the ears of Keene Town Council members and the Essex Country Board of Supervisors. Such a trail would expand residents’ recreational opportunities and enhance Jay and Keene’s visitor desirability. In short, building a mountain bike trail system in the park was a win-win-win opportunity.
“Our kids love the thrill of riding, especially our son Scott,” said BETA volunteer Jim Mooney. “Mark Nassan inspired us to get involved in the effort, BETA took over, and it’s been incredible.”
“I always wanted to play outside, and I’ve never stopped,” said East Branch Trail designer Luke Peduzzi, a Jay native who graduated from Keene Central School. “The first time I worked on creating trails was with the Adirondack Mountain Club’s professional trail crew. “Working on High Peaks trails was great, but I’ve always been a mountain biker and wanted to build bike trails. I like hiking, but mountain biking is more fun. I like its flow and speed; it’s a great way to exercise and be outside with no noise and motors.”
The most visible difference between a mountain and a road bike is the size of the tires. Then it comes down to geometry, bicycle size and stability. Road bikes are designed for smooth roadways, not the jarring bumps and being used to jump over things like rocks and roots. Traction is another difference; mountain bikes have different tread patterns. Road bikes are designed to go very fast on smooth surfaces; mountain bikes are designed to go fast on very rough surfaces.
“Used to be that bikes were designed to be used on a variety of surfaces,” said Nassan, owner of Leepoff Cycles in Keene Valley. “But then they got very specialized. You had to have one bike for going up a hill, one for going down, one for doing this, one for doing that. You couldn’t have the option of putting a larger tire on for a little more support or cushion. With rails-to-trail bikeways growing in popularity, you don’t need a mountain bike, but rather one with a little more air in the tires and stability for trails. Kids and, increasingly, adults want to have bikes similar to the type we used to have growing up. Fortunately, they are bringing back bikes that are a little more flexible, bikes you can use on roadways, dirt and gravel roads and the like.”
BETA Executive Director Josh Wilson described the new East Branch trail, named Leepoff in recognition of Nassan’s many contributions to local biking, as phase one of a multiple 6- to 7-mile trail complex featuring trails for a wide array of ability levels. The other trails are under construction as BETA, the Keene Town Council and other agencies and individuals work to generate more grants and contributions. Wilson said BETA’s goal was to provide the towns of Keene and Jay with more options for people getting out into nature, filling in the gaps of their efforts to create a mountain bike system in Placid, Wilmington, Jay and Elizabethtown.
“It’s so exciting to have this new trail system coming online,” said Keene Councilor Teresa Cheetham-Palen. “How many times have you driven by this park and wondered what it was used for? Now it has a communal connection to everything. For example, a Keene Central graduate designed the trail, and many local agencies and people got involved. We got a green light after green like to pursue this project; the energy behind this project is amazing.”
Major funding was provided by Stewart’s Shops and the Adirondack Foundation.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)